Stereophile's Products of 2020

This is Stereophile's 29th Product of the Year issue; the first appeared in 1992. That was the year I finished grad school. It seems like a long time ago.

That year, the Loudspeaker of the Year was the $14,000/pair Sonus Faber Extrema. The winning digital source was the legendary Mark Levinson No.30 DAC—also approximately $14,000. JA later bought one, upgraded to 30.5, then to 30.6 status. He still has it (footnote 1).

The finalists in the Overall category included that Sonus Faber speaker and the Jeff Rowland Design Group Consummate preamplifier, which cost just shy of $9000. (The Levinson DAC was the overall winner.) Those were the most expensive products to win a category in 1992. The least expensive was the $499 Audio Power Industries Power Wedge, which won in the budget category. (This year's Budget winner cost $100 less.) The average price of 1992's winners—excluding the budget category—was $6259.

Since 1992, prices in the economy as a whole have risen by 85%, which means that, in today's dollars, those Sonus Faber loudspeakers and that Levinson DAC each cost almost $26,000. In today's dollars, the average price of a 1992 category winner was almost $12k.

Except in the Budget category, which this year was limited to products costing about $2000—there was no specific limit in 1992—reviewers are under no obligation to consider value when nominating or voting for Products of the Year. Reviewers are free to apply their own criteria.

Yet, some years—including this one—value seems very much on reviewers' minds. With one exception, this year's category winners all cost less than the average price of a winner in 1992—and that is in actual dollars, not adjusted for inflation.

One of this year's winners—to figure out which one, read on—is quite expensive—although it's far from the most expensive product eligible for this competition: That would be the $179,000/pair darTZeel NHB-468 monoblock amplifier, which failed to make the finals despite its excellence. Nor did the $149,000/pair VAC Statement 452 iQ Musicbloc amplifier—also judged to be of the highest quality but, in this competition, apparently penalized for its high price. Several other excellent, expensive products failed to make the final round of voting.

This year, with that one exception, expensive products didn't win (footnote 2). Apparently, for whatever reason, this year's judges were concerned about value.

How It Was Done
In a sense, the process began when we started preparing our reviews for the November 2019 issue—or maybe it was back in 1962, when J. Gordon Holt founded the magazine. Either way, it really got going in early September, when I compiled and shared a list of all the products reviewed over the last 12 months (through the October issue), in full Equipment Reports or in columns by Michael Fremer, Herb Reichert, or the sorely missed Art Dudley (who used to write this essay every year), and sought nominations from Stereophile reviewers in eight categories: Loudspeaker of the Year, Amplification Component of the Year, Analog Component of the Year, Digital Component of the Year, Headphone Product of the Year, Accessory of the Year, Budget Product of the Year, and Overall Product of the Year.

This year, in a departure from previous years, we only considered products that received their first reviews during those previous 12 months—except for Editor's Choice, which was open to products reviewed earlier but auditioned by the nominating reviewer during the past 12 months.

I then went through the nominations and totaled them up. In each category, the six products with the most reviewer support became finalists (except in the Overall category where, because of a tie, there were seven finalists). Then, each reviewer cast three votes in each of the categories. Three points were awarded to their first choice, two points to their second choice, and one point to their third choice. I counted up the points.

The final step: I wrote this essay.

As Art wrote last year, "It is Jim who tallies the votes, so it is he to whom non-complacent firebrands should send notes of praise and blame." Bless him.

Some notes: The prices listed herein were current at the end of August 2020. To order back issues mentioned in this article, call (888) 237-0955 or visit shop.stereophile.com—but first, note that "WWW" in an entry means that the review is available online, free, at our website: stereophile.com.

And the winners are ...


Footnote 1: JA wrote about a recent listening experience with his Levinson DAC in his review of the Chord Hugo M Scaler.

Footnote 2: That one expensive product did win shows, I think, that reviewers were commendably flexible in their criteria

COMMENTS
mtrot's picture

No doubt an exceptional product but lacks both a USB-B port and a true home theater bypass, which makes it a no-go for me.

Kal Rubinson's picture

Update for USB in the pipeline. It will be in the form of an MDC module.

mtrot's picture
BlackH20's picture

A whole article on cost, you have already lost generations by arguing over the wire and can't let a young working man get into the basic hobby or even understand the value in it.

tonykaz's picture

If you were young again, which of today's gear choices would you invest in?

I'm thinking Schiit & PS Audio probably.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tony in Venice

PeterG's picture

Yes on Schiit and PS. Let's add in NAD, Bluesound, and lower priced B&W

tonykaz's picture

like a ultra-niche watering hole for eclectics ( something like me ) featuring artistic writing on rather intellectual subjects like 'transparency'. This might be an out-of-the-way Bar where the Audiophile Junta meet in semi-secret. hmm.

and yet,

The group's nominated Product of the Year is a Chinesium , of all things.

Why wasn't it Chad Kassem's Company and thier work in accessible High Quality Music ? It could've be a No.1 choice.

or

the Schiit Company for making Audiophile gear available to anyone that can afford cigarettes.

Stereophile has a higher calling than a normal glossy Mag.

Stereophile is the Carrier/Keeper/Curator & Documentor of a beautiful Music Culture where, I'm hoping, rising prices won't be the measure of raising the Bar.

The Audiophiliac remains my nomination for Audiophile of the Year.

Tony in Venice

Glotz's picture

Goes to YOU, Tony!

Kudos.

monetschemist's picture

This comment:

"Best of all, readers who bought one because of the review emailed me to say they were thrilled.—Michael Fremer

Here we have a reviewer, who has been "doing this" for a long time, who is at the top of his game, who impresses both manufacturers and readers for his efforts, who has the reputation and technical chops to review 6 figure audio equipment.

And here, where we might therefore expect to see swagger and an "I told you so" attitude, we see instead his delight in readers who are pleased by his recommendations.

Thank you, Mr. Fremer, for sharing your wisdom and experience and for maintaining your humanity.

Glotz's picture

For giving me incredible, accurate recommendations every year!
I put my money where their mouths are!

Despite Corona virus whupping the world economy's ass, I bought in 2020:

PS Audio Stellar phono preamp (Stereophile- MF)
Benchmark HPA4 line/headphone amp (KR)
Hana ML cartridge (HR)
NAD C427 tuner
Schiit Modius DAC (Analog Planet- ML)
Magneplanar 1.7i speakers
REL T5i subwoofers -2
HiFi Man He-400i headphones
AudioQuest Colorado XLR & RCA interconnects
AudioQuest Carbon Coax and USB interconnects
Shunyata Defender
Audio Reference LP Carbonmat record mat
Aesthetics ABCD-1 Demagnetizer
Belles 150a Hot Rod amp re-chip (ST)
Soundsmith Carmen 1 cartridge re-tip (HR).

All of the parenthesis show which reviewer recommended it, and I feel their perceptions on every product were spot-on accurate. The rest of the equipment were also well reviewed and recommended by other magazines.

I truly thank them for reporting on their observations, insights, and thoroughness when reviewing. My trust is shown by purchasing this gear!

I also thank them all for fun and truly superlative writing! And to JA for his measurements and insights...

The take-away is great sound isn't by accident. We need great writers who adhere to truth and art, and understand the fine line between both and make salient recommendations for the audience they believe it fits.

And thank you to Stereophile and its web presence (and the AP), where real audio debate and discovery are available to everyone.

davemill's picture

I'll second Sterophile's gear advice with one notable exception. Gear that is manufactured and designed in China is a definite no go for me. This includes such companies as Holoaudio and Denafrips. I will not support communists. My wife grew up under communism in Romania. I also avoid gear that is manufactured in China although if I wasn't fortunate to have funds for a higher budget I might be tempted to buy the lower end B&W and NAD equipment. That being said I am very happy with the following purchases I made over the past 12 months.

Revel PerformaBe F228 (KR)
Parasound Halo A21+ (KR)
Shunyata Research Denali 6000/S v2 power distributor
Shunyata Research Sigma XC and 2 Alpha NR v2 power cords
Shunyata Research CopperConn duplex outlet

The impact of the Shunyata products was mind-blowing to me. I will likely replace my Synergistic Research interconnects and speaker cables with Shunyata's new v2 products in 2021.

YRMV

Glotz's picture

Killer speakers and amp!

I do love Shunyata's approach to their entire line. While I don't like the Venom interconnects, I do love and use the speaker cables. But I will be looking to the V2 line next year, probably the Deltas.

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